There are those who think if we stop believing in G-d, He will simply cease to exist. The opposite is true. If we stop believing in G-d, we cease to exist.
No, atheists will not vanish in a puff of smoke because of their beliefs (though they may sometimes make us wish they did). Rather, if the general beliefs of society lose touch with G-d, the society loses its humanity.
It seems not a day goes by without a new article, study, or opinion piece about human frailty. The Internet loves to tell me why I’m Wrong About Everything. This is not mysterious, as I click on things that tell me I’m wrong and this is good business. It goes further though. According to science, I’m not just wrong; I’m unable to be right. My mind cannot think, my eyes cannot see, and indeed, it seems my every limb is flawed and ineffective. I used to think the Psalmist was lamenting the emptiness of the idolaters’ deities. But without G-d, and creation in G-d’s image, man finds his own brain made of clay and his eyes of wood; “Like them shall be those who make them, all who trust in them.”
It is a bitter irony that in an age so conscious of ecology, of subtle balances whose slight upsetting could wreak great havoc, we tease at our inner spiritual ecology with abandon. Then we’re amazed when we wake up one morning to find ourselves moored to the bed, conquered by depression and self-hatred.
For almost two thousand years, man looked at himself through a religious monotheistic lens and thought, mostly, “Oh, man. I’m a bit of a sinner, aren’t I?” And then they’d clean themselves up, or drink themselves into a stupor, or, yes, lie in bed, depressed. So some very intelligent, analytical people thought, “I don’t much fancy myself a sinner. I think I’m a pretty good guy, and that is how I shall view myself.” Of course, being a pretty good guy is contingent on being a sinner, but the proof took a few million deaths to really draw out. Post-Hitler, -Stalin, -Pol Pot, -Mao, etc., one may state confidently: All the good guys are sinners, or were sinners, or will one day be sinners.
Good guys choose “sinner” or at least “penitent.” Bad guys choose “good guy,” and that’s what they believe they are all the way through to the bullet in the bunker, because this first and most important choice isn’t about us but about the truth. As Chesterton used to say, when a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes in anything.
True, even without G-d, the concept of a sin prevailed. In fact, even in religious contexts, sin can exist without G-d, often with disastrous consequences. The totally non-religious sin is only an extension of this “religious” error. A sin against a creator is personal, is a distance between two beings, a rift in a relationship. A sin as part of a system of divine rules (that dead reality I spoke about in my last Hevria piece) is a contradiction to the system and therefore unmakes a person’s conception of themselves as holy or good, as they are in violation of the only reality they see as holy; a sin may not destroy G-d, but in a real sense it destroys the Torah. And nowadays, an intolerant, racist, sexist, (and most importantly) uncool, unsexy person is likewise unmade, divorced from the system that might otherwise sanctify them as a “good person.”
But modern sins are only the happier and more logical of our choices if we stop believing in G-d, for at least the followers of the modern morality have some kind of compass outside of themselves. There are those, however, who don’t want to be sinners at all, who wish to think of their actions as totally inviolate. They forfeit the classical conceptions of humanity and free choice and declare all actions to be essentially the same, whether they belong to the most respected members of society or those we would confine to the insane asylum. Our actions arise from brain chemicals, biology, and our childhoods. There is no sense of victory to the human endeavor, the glory of natures overcome. We all merely play our predetermined roles and then fade away, having propagated the species in our wake (or, increasingly, not). There really are no humans, in the old sense of the world. There are only animals, and some of them are particularly smart and can make smart phones and the like, which is “very cool.”
There’s a famous story about a chassid who delivers the backhanded compliment, “I merely think about myself all day; you think about G-d all day.” He explains: I’m worried about how I can possibly exist, whereas you’re concerned for G-d’s existence while your own is a certainty.
I always assumed this story had to do with chassidus, chassidic theology, which constantly challenges the world’s independent existence, as everything that exists is merely an expression of the Creator. But the story can be understood at a simpler level as well. The man who is concerned whether G-d exists ends up neglecting “his own vineyard,” and it is his own existence which slowly slips away. It is only the man for whom transcendence is reality and who constantly questions himself whose continued humanity is ensured.
Originally posted on Hevria.